This is a fascinating article about the ballooning costs of building a school on the old Ambassador Hotel site. I think I’m still trying to adjust to the fact that they actually tore down the Ambassador, in lieu of using the structure. Only time will tell whether these costs will be justified – but the figures for the costs per student and the numbers for other big construction projects around the city in the past couple of years are truly eye-popping.
Already ballooning to $572 million, Los Angeles Unified’s most expensive school – and possibly the nation’s – looks like it will need a final $6 million infusion before fully opening this fall.
The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a K-12 complex on the former site of the Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, needs the money to satisfy environmental regulations.
School board members are scheduled Tuesday to vote on the additional funding request.
The school will consist of six different learning centers and enroll 4,260 students, making the cost per seat about $135,000 – nearly 40 percent higher than the average school built in the central Los Angeles area over the past two years.
It even exceeds the per-seat cost of the pricey High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, whose $132,000 per-seat price tag – along with its bold, roller-coaster inspired architecture – raised plenty of eyebrows when it opened in September 2009.
District officials say the cost of the Robert F. Kennedy complex is more than justified if you consider its urban location, historical significance and expected community role.
“It has all the modern amenities, like an underground garage, a pool, a state-of-the-art auditorium…,” said James Sohn, LAUSD’s chief facilities executive. “In that context, cost of the schools is appropriate.”
The 23-acre Wilshire Boulevard lot will bring the park-starved neighborhood much-needed green space, including soccer fields and a state-of-the-art swimming pool. It also includes public art pieces and a marble mural memorial to Kennedy, who was running for president when he was gunned down in the hotel’s kitchen.
Still, some of the items purchased for the school have caught the attention of top district officials, such as talking benches designed by artists to commemorate the historic significance of the Ambassador Hotel and its famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub.
“If you’re asking me if I can justify a talking bench… when I look at the science labs and libraries of our older schools … I cannot,” LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said.
Cortines questioned the need for such items to be paid for out of taxpayer funds, when they could have been funded through private donations.
But the schools chief said small extravagances shouldn’t detract from seeing the school as a centerpiece for the community and the city.
From its inception, the Ambassador schools were intended to be one of the most elaborate campuses, funded through the district’s $20 billion voter-approved construction bond program.
The project was bid in two separate phases, for an initial total cost of $400 million, district officials said. Rising construction costs, for the most part, caused the district to add $170 million to the total price tag in 2008, although most media reported the original $400 million price tag as recently as January, when it was officially named after Kennedy.
The RFK complex of schools is now the most expensive campus ever built by LAUSD, surpassing even the $377 million spent to renovate and decontaminate the troubled Belmont Learning Complex, which had been built on toxic land.
Of the $170 million in additional cost, some $21 million was from change orders requested by the contractor. Most of those changes were to meet stringent state requirements and historical preservation requirements, district officials said.
The move to build a school on the Ambassador Hotel site began in the 1980s.
When the district began its battle to acquire the site, it was busing 3,800 students in the adjacent community to schools across the city – and as far as the west San Fernando Valley.
Still, the district had to spar for a decade with business mogul Donald Trump, who wanted to build the world’s tallest skyscraper on the land.
Later district officials also fought historic preservationists who wanted to stop the school’s construction.
After heated negotiations, preservationists abandoned the effort, but only after officials agreed to some concessions. That included re-creating key elements of the Ambassador site, including the historic Cocoanut Grove nightclub where singers like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. once performed for Hollywood celebrities.
“I am very excited that after many years of struggle and many years of community action, we can finally open the door on the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools project …,” said LAUSD board President Monica Garcia. “This is going to be an amazing facility for some 4,000 K-12 students.”
Garcia acknowledged the cost, but noted that a lot of money has gone to a number of lawsuits and agreements to preserve the site.
“I am glad we invested when we did and this school continues to be part of the struggle to get to 100 percent graduation in this district.”
Neil Gamble, LAUSD’s deputy chief of facilities, said the new construction phase of the district’s massive construction program is coming to an end, with only a couple of schools left to bid.
“We do not have another school of this magnitude either under construction or planned,” Gamble said.
School board member Steve Zimmer said he will look closely at the change orders that have been requested for the project. But he added that “if the true cost were $250,000 a seat, it would be worth every penny.”
Charter school officials, however, said LAUSD’s construction costs were exorbitant.
“If you look at that cost per seat, that is three or four times what many charter schools are delivering in the Los Angeles area,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association.
“I think things could have been done far more efficiently than this project suggests is happening …,” Wallace said. “In this era of great financial pressure I believe we need to use our resources as wisely and efficiently as possible.”
Big ticket productions
$578M — Expected construction cost for Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools on former Ambassador Hotel site.
$135K — Construction cost per student seat
Here are some other big L.A. facilities built in recent years for hundred-million-plus price tags:
Hollywood & Highland complex: $625 million, 2001
Americana at Brand: $400 million, 2008
Staples Center: $375 million, 1999
Walt Disney Concert Hall: $274 million, 2003
Universal Studios backlot: $200 million, 2010
Downtown cathedral: $190 million, 2002
Home Depot center: $150 million, 2003